The NBA's Extra Step: What Happened to Traveling?

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Traveling. Steps. Walking. Does the violation even exist in the basketball rule book any longer? Brendan Maloney-USA TODAY Sports

After playing the first two games of the NBA Finals in San Antonio, the Spurs and Miami Heat will resume their series with Game 3 in Miami on Tuesday. The league will tell you that today, Monday, is a travel day. But that’s only partly true: Every day in the NBA is now a travel day.

Traveling. Steps. Walking. Does the violation even exist in the basketball rule book any longer? And if it does, why has the NBA, or its officials, opted to utterly neglect enforcing it? Early in Game 2—and you can watch the replay here, courtesy of the folks at ESPN (0:30)—LeBron James caught a pass just outside the left elbow, took one dribble and then, after he picked up the ball, took one, two, three steps before laying the ball into the peach basket, which in any basketball, in any era, is traveling.

ESPN’s Robert Flores then noted that the refs may have missed a whistle on the play. “[LeBron] wanted the and-one but did not get it,” said Flores, as the replay showed James gesturing at a referee as if to ask, “What does the most bankable star in the NBA need to do in order to get two calls in his favor on one play?”

Later in the game, with just over five minutes remaining, James caught the ball at the top of the key, guarded by the Spurs’ Boris Diaw. The four-time MVP began to drive left and again took one, two, three steps before drawing a two-shot foul from Diaw. A message to all those funny people on the Web who contributed to the “LeBroning” meme last weekend: “LeBroning” is not being carried; it’s carrying the basketball.

I have singled out James, but nearly everyone in the NBA travels with impunity—kind of like Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters. While referees—and broadcasters—are only too happy to devote a minute or two to debating the difference between a Flagrant 1 and a Flagrant 2, Kawhi Leonard probably just took four steps on a breakaway dunk.

Someone has even compiled a video of “Top 10 Uncalled Travels (NBA)” and maybe it’s just a coincidence that their thumbnail pic is of LeBron making a whiny face. Here’s Kirk Hinrich of the Chicago Bulls stepping backward as if he’s Michael Jackson during that immortal “Billie Jean” performance, while a referee, just 10 feet away (probably only five feet away when Hinrich began traveling), ignores the infraction.

Why can’t referees’ whistles blow instead of making all of us watch the referees blow?

Perhaps NBA referees do not understand the rules (they’re here), or they are incompetent (they are not), or someone, somewhere has decided fans would rather see their favorite players create offensive offense, as opposed to having some old stick-in-the-mud like Dr. James Naismith cramp their style. What’s the big deal? a few fans ask.

The big deal is a two-part answer. First, these are the rules of the game, and a game is only as fair at its rules are respected. In baseball, you still have to touch first base (and every other base) whether or not you beat the throw. Games, people and civilizations are all led to ruin the same way: incrementally. The path to decay always begins with a first step (and, in the NBA’s case, with two more steps).

The second half of the answer, less philosophical, is that it’s difficult to defend anyone one on one when you don’t understand what that player’s parameters for locomotion are. It’s impossible to do so against the world’s best, and most beastly, offensive leviathan. That would be LeBron.

I’ll spare you the chalk talk, but as a defender you understand—and by this point in an NBA player’s career, it’s instinctive—what a player driving to the basket may do once he picks up his dribble. One step as he picks up the ball, and then a second step. The alert defender prepares to contest a shot after that second step. That third step leaves him hopelessly out of position.

A player who takes a third step on his way to the goal is playing a different game. It’s called football.

If there is any collusion between the league office and its referees to ignore traveling—and I have no evidence there is—they may be doing so in an effort to appeal to a younger audience. What the league may not realize, or not care about, is that a legion of fans who are less vocal on social media are either turning off the games or no longer watching. “It’s not even basketball,” one fan, a former college basketball player, told me.

If you are part of this contingent—as I am—and find yourself arguing this point with someone (who is probably younger), ask him to do the following: The next time he attends an NBA game, watch the pre-game layup drills. How often does a player take three steps after picking up the ball on his way to the basket?

Never. Because he knows that would be traveling.

 
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